Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

A Publisher By Any Other Name

Indie Writers… What a Strange Term…

Just for a short time I want to explain why I have been shaking my head for almost ten years now when I hear the term “Indie Writer.” I hate to say it, but I was an indie writer when I sold over a hundred novels to traditional publishing.

That’s right. I was an independent writer, with my own business, often selling to three or four or five traditional publishers at the same time. Not counting magazines and anthologies and other stuff.

I had my own business as a writer. I was an indie writer.

We were just not called indie writers back then. We were just writers.

So along comes this wonderful new world that I love so much and writers started calling themselves indie writers. Great. A distinction between selling to traditional publishers and being a publisher themselves. No issue. And a fantastic amount better than calling themselves “Self-published.” I fought against that term for years here.

However, these writers in this new world also took on the publishing aspects of the career. They started, under all definitions of the terms, a “Small Press.”

Small presses have existed for as far back in publishing as I can track them. And there are even guidelines that were standard for a century or more that determine the difference between small press and medium presses and large presses.

Publisher size is determined by how many titles and the gross sales of the business.

(These are old guidelines from back at the turn of the century…)

Small Press…For the longest time the number of titles for a small press was 1-10 titles a year and under one million gross. (This includes most indie writers these days and almost all university presses.)

Medium or Mid-sized Press… Over ten titles and over a million gross.

Most, but not all, writers who call themselves indie writers are small presses. Some are medium presses.

And Author Earnings has a vastly different way of defining this for their tracking, if I remember right.

But Nothing Is Standard These Days…

Sure, the writers are still indie. But their business is being a publisher. The indie writer decides which publisher to send the work to. Their own press, a magazine, or a traditional press. Or any combination of the above.

However, not only have all sorts of variations sprang up, but the names are all confused.

And there seems to be little, if any way of measuring, or even a need to measure if a company was a small press or medium press. When we had Pulphouse Publishing Inc. in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the distinction was critical in how we got treated in so many places, from distribution to advertising costs to mailing costs.

Now, not so much.

And what is confusing is that so many writers haul their publishing business right into their writing business. And more times than not, that causes problems.

To put it bluntly, most indie writers these days don’t understand how to be a publisher.

What is important to a publisher is vastly different than what is important to a writer. Always has been and nothing about that has changed.

Kris and I started a publishing company right from the start of the indie movement. And now we don’t even run it. We sell to it, but we don’t run it. We keep it, as much as possible, out of our writing decisions.

For example, no book at WMG Publishing Inc. is ever advertised until it is turned in and done.  No one at WMG tells me or Kris or any author what to write. That just never comes up.

So What To Do To Help the Confusion?

Wear two hats.

One is an indie writer hat. Free to write what you want.

A second hat is the publisher hat, where all thought is on sales, covers, marketing, distribution, and so on. The publisher hat is in charge of your magic bakery for the most part as well.

Your publisher hat should never limit or control your writer hat. It should be the other way around.

Writer hat controls. 

Of course, in this modern world of a thousand names for everything, my simple approach to this problem won’t work for many. And sadly, most indie writers, especially the beginners, don’t even know how to be a publisher, so it never occurs to them to keep the two jobs separate. To them it is one job.

But it isn’t.

A writer is a person who writes.

Merrian-Webster says: Definition of publisher: One that publishes something; especially a person or corporation whose business is publishing.

So when you are working on a book or story, you are an indie writer. When you are finished and want to get it out to readers, you become a publisher.

Two jobs, two hats.

Your writing will be better served if you learned how to be a publisher, how to think like a publisher, and kept that job separate.

Yup, easier said than done. But important to try in the confusion of this new world.

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  • David Anthony Brown

    A useful exercise for me was to update my resume. Just something I had to do recently (and got the job I applied for, but that’s a different story). I counted “publisher” and “writer” as two different jobs, with their own skill sets and job duties. I already knew I’m a jack of all trades, but still eye opening to see how different the two hats really are. Also useful to see how many skills I’ve picked up in the last two years.

    • Michael J Lawrence

      Me: Well, here’s my latest.
      Myself: (flipping through pages, sighing.) I can’t publish this.
      Me: Hey, I’m just the writer.
      Myself: Yeah, but you’ve got to write something I can publish.
      Me: (shrugging) Look, I just write what rings true. What’s not to publish?
      Myself: Well, this title for one thing. “A Spew of Words” just isn’t going to get any traction.
      Me: Fine, call it “The Loquacious Chronicles” Makes it sound like a series. Readers like series.
      Myself: And what the hell genre is this?
      Me: Remember Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs?
      Myself: Really?
      Me: Well, yeah, except this is more serious. And no cowboys. Or dinosaurs.
      Myself: It’s a girl in space trying to use the radio to contact her dead aunt. I mean, what the hell am I supposed to do with this?
      I: Um, fellas, did we get any money from Amazon this month? I’m getting a little hungry over here.
      Me, Myself: (In unison) No.
      Me: Just hold on a minute.
      Myself. Yeah, we’re working on it.

      • Charlotte

        Hey, I would read that dead aunt in space story, without cowboys or dinosaurs.
        So, point proven ? your editor just needs to find a way to sell whatever your creator comes up with.

  • Leah Cutter

    Heh. I’ve given that advice for years – that the first thing you should do when you, as a writer, decide that you want to self-publish your works, is to go buy a hat. Then physically put that hat on and wear it when you do your publishing work, and be sure that you take it off when you write. That physical act may help you break those into two separate jobs.

  • allynh

    (These are old guidelines from back at the turn of the century…)

    When I read that, my Rules Lawyer kicked in and said, Which century. Then I realized that a hundred years ago, a million was considered a lot of money, so it became clear that you meant the latest “turn of the century.” HA!